A few weeks ago I was on a walk with my little 18-month-old nephew. His most recent and most exciting discovery has been dogs. Every time he sees one, he squeals “puppy!” and goes after the unsuspecting canine. And this kid is fearless. No matter the size or demeanor of the dog, he went running toward it, hands outstretched, ready to make another furry, four-legged friend.
While this was adorable to watch, I also felt a spike of panic every time the nephew took off running after a “puppy!” I didn’t know if he had learned yet to be soft on animals (luckily he had), and I had no idea how the dogs we met would respond to this mini, squealing human. What if he startled one, or got too grabby, and the dog reacted negatively? This got me thinking about the lessons we can teach both to kids and to pets to keep everyone playing nice.
Teaching Pet-Friendly Kids
Lead by example. If you have a pet in the home, try to model positive behaviors that your child can copy. Never demonstrate abusive treatment, such as hitting or yelling at your pet. Refrain from behaviors like picking up your pet if you prefer that your child not pick him or her up. If you do not have a pet in the home, begin teaching your child good behaviors by interacting with the pets you do encounter. If you meet a dog on a walk, pet the dog first so your child knows how to interact with him.
Involve your child in the pet’s care. Give your child a job or responsibility that is appropriate for their age. For example, a young child can help fill a pet’s food and water dishes. If you are taking your pet to the vet, bring your child along so they can also feel invested in your pet’s well being. If a neighbor with a pet needs a pet sitter, encourage your child to help out or take the job, thus having a short-term experience with being a pet caretaker.
Encourage a child’s interest in animals. The more a child learns about animals, both in general and for a specific species, the more respect they will have for them.
Help your child, especially young children, identify emotions in your pet (hungry, sad, angry, scared, happy) and help them respond appropriately. You definitely will want to teach children to respect pets’ personal space an time. If a dog is on its bed having a snooze, teach children not to disturb him. If a cat is eating, teach a child to give kitty her space. A pet is more likely to have a negative reaction to a child if it gets accosted in its personal space, such as around the food dishes and in favorite resting spots.
Take the time to correct your child’s mistreatment of the pet. If they can get away with it, they will keep doing it and will most likely receive retaliation from the pet
Teaching Kid-Friendly Pets
Pets rely on their instincts, especially in situations where there is a new and unreliable factor, such as a squealing toddler. You can only rely on your pet’s good nature and training to a certain point. Learn what your pet’s warning signals are and be ready to intervene and get your pet out of a stressful situation that they can’t handle.
Always try to be present when a child and pet are interacting, especially if the child is young and the interaction is new. Your pet will need a familiar face and presence to rely on, and it’s simply safer for the child and the pet if you’re there.
Help your pet to know they can escape to you. If it is possible, teach your pet to come to you if they are becoming stressed by a child. If your pet knows that you will take care of the little human, then they won’t try to solve the situation in their own way.
Give your pet a safe place. A dog may seek refuge in a crate, a cat may keep to the back rooms of your house. If your pet decides not to interact with a child, they will be able to avoid stressful and potentially dangerous situations if they know they have a place of retreat. Honor your pet’s desire to be left alone and encourage children to do the same. Establish boundaries and rules for kids so they will know not to bother Fido if he is in his crate.
These are all simply starting points for making child-pet interactions safer and more enjoyable. Follow your best judgment and fit these suggestions to your own situation.